Friday, 23 March 2012

Who am I? I'm still working on it

I was chairing a debate in the National Library of Scotland last night (get me!) about the impact independence might have on Scottish culture. Oranised by Irish Pages and Gutter Magazine, it brought eight authors (four Scots, four Irish) together to debate what might happen to Scotland if independence came to pass, how had independence changed Irish culture and how might Scottish independence impact on Northern Ireland.
It was an interesting debate which shot off in all sorts of interesting directions. At one point the Irish poet Thomas McCarthy argued that Scots, if they do opt for independence, should then feel a duty of care to Ulster Protestants - the Scots Irish - in the same way as the Irish Republic felt a duty to Northern Irish Catholics. In reply, the Belfast novelist Glenn Patterson pointed out that many Northern Irish Protestants might not appreciate Scots telling them they were now responsible for them.
I'm still not sure how I feel about the idea of independence for Scotland. I'm not bothered by the economic arguments particularly - we are all in such deep waters when it comes to economy I'm not convinced it will make a huge difference - but I do like the idea that it would mean Scotland would be forced to grow up a little, to take responsibility for itself (if not those on the other side of the North Channel), to renew its own idea of itself. That's a challenge but also an opportunity.
What has any of this to do with sport? Well, sport is itself at times a projection of identity. We are currently in the midst of a huge pre-Olympic publicity drive which is sending out messages about Britishness.
Some of those messages - however you feel about Britishness in general - seem hugely positive to me. The Olympic Britain we are being offered is an ambitious, multicultural, inclusive place. Now you can argue that this is PR hype, but it's an attractive vision and sport is one of the areas where multiculturalism plays out in a relatively equal playing field (we are all marked by the realities of class, gender and race but if you get to the playing fields and you have talent then there's a chance your talent is what you will be judged on).
As someone who has written a book about feeling Northern Irish mostly because of Gerry Armstong's goal against Spain in the 1982 World Cup I suppose I would naturally argue that sport can define identity. But why sport? I love 1980s English pop music made in Manchester, the poetry of Philip Larkin, the films of Michael Powell and the paintings of Paul Nash - all which makes me a huge Anglophile, And yet I don't feel English at all.
For a while - in the eighties - I did feel Scottish, wanting to embrace something that wasn't Northern Irish, an identity I was keen to get away from at the time. And to do that I started becoming very interested in Scottish sport - Scottish football in particular. But before long I drifted back to liking English football because I had an emotional connection with it. It's what I had grown up watching. My Northern Irishness manifested itself via English football bizarrely enough.
I'm not sure what the point I'm trying to make is (obviously) but I guess it's got something to do with the idea that identity is fluid. It isn't fixed. Or doesn't have to be. We can remake ourselves in whatever way we want.
Some, of course, don't want to. In Northern Ireland this week Linfield fans went on what the local papers claimed was "a rampage" after their side had been beaten in a Setanta Cup tie with Derry City. The event was marked by claim and counterclaim but it is just another example of how football in the north allows a platform for a form of sectarian theatricality (the Old Firm provide the same in Scotland).
And yet the first leg of the Cup saw Martin McGuinness make his first visit to Windsor Park. In January Peter Robinson travelled to Armagh for the final of the McKenna Cup - the first time he had attended a GAA match. Token gestures you could argue but the fact that they are being made at all seems worth applauding. Robinson in the past had been a bitter critic of the GAA for its Republican links.
And the other week the DUP mayor of Ballymoney Ian Stevenson gave his public support to his local GAA team Lochgiel Shamrocks. Stevenson had recently found out that his grandfather played for the Shamrocks in the 1920s. As a result a culture he presumably felt no part of has provided a personal entry point for him.
The point is nothing is fixed. Identity may be something inherited but it is also to a large degree created. We are who we think we are. And sometimes we learn that who we think we are is only because we haven't got all the evidence to hand. Or because we've thought better of it.

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